Written by Coach LP:
I started writing this article looking to provide a beginner fitness enthusiast with the appropriate progression to train the squat safely and effectively. I quickly realized I had many more things to say about the basics of the squats. In other words this article will be a bit longer than anticipated and I’m sure you’ll find a few valuable concepts reading it.
1. Squatting for mobility and joint health:
The first idea I want to share is the value of using the squat as a tool to develop and maintain good mobility. When you sit in your deepest squat position, you are moving your ankles, knees, hips and spine into potentially their full amount of flexion. There is a lot of value in regularly moving your joints through their full range of motion. Doing so in a squat position is a very functional way that aligns with our evolution. Dr Kelly Starrett put this idea on my radar more than a decade ago with his first ever “mobilitywod” where he discussed this exact concept. His vlog then became one of the most influential channels in the fitness industry. You can watch that specific video here.
“For the health of your ankles, knees, hips and spine, sitting down in the bottom of the squat in a fully flexed and relaxed position can be a very beneficial practice”
2. Talk to your glutes:
The glutes are a very important muscle group both for hip and lower back health and from a performance standpoint. It’s pretty common for beginner trainees to have a hard time “feeling their glutes” during exercise. Partly because we sit a lot and tend not to recruit them much for daily activities.
While the usefulness of glute activation exercise is still debated (you can watch Brett Contreras summarize the subject HERE), I have found that incorporating a pre-training glute activation routine is very useful to help beginners “talk to their glutes”. Doing so builds mind muscle connection and makes it easier for people to keep the conversation going during exercises that follow. Here are some ideas for you to get started:
3. Use appropriate movement progression:
If you are not yet confident with squats, loading up a barbell on your back and squatting is probably the worst thing you can do to teach your body proper squatting mechanics. When learning a new movement you could follow these progressions:
- Range of motion: Move from a range of motion you can control towards full range of motion
- Stability: Start with movements that provide more of stability towards less stability
- Support: Use support as needed, work your way towards less support
Here is what this progression may look like for someone looking to build themselves towards squatting with a barbell:
- Counterbalance Squat To bench
- Goblet Squat To Bench
- Goblet Squat
- Dual Dumbbell or Kettlebell Front Squat
- Front Squat
“There is not one perfect way to squat, optimal squatting mechanics will look differently from one person to the next”
4. Emphasize proper technique:
While there are many squat tutorials out there I want to provide a quick technical review of specific points that you should emphasize when squatting. Before we get into it, remember that there is not one perfect way to squat, optimal squatting mechanics will look differently from one person to the next. While points of performance such as foot placement and torso angles will vary based on your body structure, there are recommendations that will apply to most when looking for the best technique:
- Keep your weight balanced over your entire foot. A cue that is often shouted is “sit back on your heels”, while this is a good cue to teach a beginner to avoid shifting their weight to far forward, it is commonly overused by coaches which leads to people placing an exaggerated amount of their body weight on their heels and reinforces improper mechanics. Both your toes and your heels should stay on the ground applying pressure slightly towards the back half on your foot.
- Hips and knees should break together on the descent. While this is not a universal cue, I think there is lots of value in teaching beginners to avoid putting too much emphasis on “driving the hips back” or “pushing the knee forward” on the descent of a squat. You should see your hips and your knee bend simultaneously as you initiate the descent. Overtime, you may need to favor one or the other based on your body proportions, this is where an experienced coach can be useful to teach you how to adjust the squat for you.
- Your torso angle should follow closely your shin angle. This is an easy way to figure out what is the most appropriate torso angle for you. If we look at you squatting from the side and draw a line that follows your torso and a line that follows your shin, we should see the two lines pretty much parallel to another.
- Strive to move through full range of motion (if you are ready for it). While I have nothing against partial range of motion movements and have also mentioned above how some should start with limited range of motion. You should aim to be able to move through your full range of motion when training the squat. The movement variations and weight you use in your training should allow you to do so. Tying it back to our initial mobility discussion, you gain more mobility and recruit more of your muscle mass if you train your squats that way.
“The best mobility exercise you can do for the squat is to squat”
5. Address specific mobility restrictions
This topic could get really complex and very individual, but I want to give you mobility ideas for common mobility limitations in the squat. Remember that the best mobility exercise you can do for the squat is to squat with full range of motion! So if your squat position needs work you should use appropriate mobility drills prior to squatting to allow you to get in the best position possible. Here’s a few common limitation with an idea of how you could work on them:
- Ankle Dorsiflexion ———————>
- Hip Flexion ——————————->
- Hip External and Internal Rotation ->
That’s enough for today. I hope you got a few nuggets from this one. Don’t be shy to share it with someone that could benefit from this information.
~ Coach LP